The original Ravenloft module introduced gypsies as a plot device, with the fortune telling of Madam Eva being a way to change the module in small ways and to increase replay potential. They were also added for flavor, as their relationship with Strahd was obviously meant to echo the relationship of the gypsies with the titular character of the novel Dracula.
When Ravenloft was expanded into a full-fledged campaign setting in 1990, the gypsies also got an expanded role. They became the Vistani, the only beings in Ravenloft capable of travelling the Mists safely. Having a strange relationship not just with Strahd, but with the Dark Powers themselves, the Vistani were both mysterious and powerful.
The Vistani became the ultimate plot device. Their very nature allowed them to appear and disappear as needed by the DM. They were capable of spouting accurate but cryptic prophesy on demand. Perhaps most importantly, they generally had enough mystic might to keep annoyed players from killing them on sight.
They were never really intended to be player characters, but like drow elves and dragons, it is perhaps inevitable that people wanted to play them.
Players first got their crack at playing members of this mysterious race when Van Richten's Guide to the Vistani came out for AD&D 2e. When White Wolf took over the setting in D&D 3e, they introduced Half-Vistani as one of the core races for the setting.
In this month’s Dragon, we get to see the D&D 4e take on playing a Vistani. I am certain that some Vistani purist will cry foul, but all in all I think it is an interesting updating of the concept of what it means to be a Vistani.
Vistani are no longer a separate race. Much like the Dhampyr presented in an earlier Dragon, they are considered a bloodline. To become a Vistani you only need to pick up the appropriate bloodline feat. This feat then opens up a number of bloodline feats that can be used to enhance your class abilities.
Because the Vistani are now a bloodline, they can be of any race. They become Vistani after being subjected to the Vistani blooding ritual. This ritual is usually performed on children who are absorbed into the clan, but it can be performed on an adult who performs a great service for the Vistani as well.
While this seemed a bit weird to me at first, I think it is a good idea to make the Vistani a bit more cosmopolitan. In a world with a large number of sentient races, I like the concept that a Vistani caravan may include halflings or tieflings in its number. The common bond of being outcasts outweighing the difference in race is a powerful concept to me.
As for the Vistani feats, they are very interesting. The initial bloodline feat gives the character the Evil Eye of the Vistani feat power. This power is a ranged charm attack vs Will which grants you combat advantage versus the target and prevents them from willingly moving closer to you until the end of your next turn.
What is interesting is that many of the bloodline feats you can pick up give you special abilities you can use against the target of your Evil Eye of the Vistani power. These often play off of existing class abilities, like Warlock’s Curse or Oath of Emnity, and grant additional abilities when used against the target of the Evil Eye.
Probably my favorite bloodline feat is the paragon level Prophetic Preperation feat. Once per day, it allows you to swap a daily attack spell and a utility spell you did not prepare for one that you did prepare. The rational is that your prophetic visions led you to choose the spell you needed.
I am a little surprised that they didn’t tie the Vistani into the Shadowfell in some manner. Since the Shadowfell is where the D&D 4e version of the Ravenloft setting is located, and the Vistani are so traditionally tied in to Ravenloft, it seems like it would be a natural fit. It is easy to see how an ancient pact with the Raven Queen could be used as an excuse for them to wander between the Domains of Dread with impunity.
I can only assume that with WOTC exploring the shadow power source in recent issues of Dragon with races like the revenant and classes like the assassin that they were loathe to tie the Vistani to the Raven Queen and the Shadowfell as well.
Perhaps this is for the best. With a little tweaking, the Vistani can now become an interesting part of any campaign, not just a horror themed one.
Anyway, there is nothing stopping you from placing a Vistani Revenant Assassin in your game if you want to. Well, nothing other than good taste.